Posted: 1 February 2012. Updated: 15 April 2015
When ADI secured the ban on animal circuses in Bolivia it presented a new challenge. Next we had to race across Bolivia, closing down every circus, seizing every animal. Then the record-breaking lion flights to the US. The first group of four went to California. The rest, 25, on one flight to Colorado. Even after touching down the rescue continues to break new ground.
The lions now roam as prides in the largest habitats of their kind in the US - up to 25 acres for a single pride. It is as close as we can get to returning these animals to the wild. With our sanctuary partner, this is a staggering achievement in rehabilitation and animal care.
By having sanctuary partners rather than running our own sanctuary, ADI is able to maintain our focus on our core work to secure permanent change. But when animals need to be saved in extraordinary circumstances, such as Operation Lion Ark, we are ready to take on what appears to be impossible.
When we first met Pat Craig of The Wild Animal Sanctuary (TWAS) and outlined what we were doing with Operation Lion Ark, we knew our two organizations were a perfect match. Here was a sanctuary absolutely maximizing the space for the animals, giving them acre upon acre to roam. There and then, TWAS committed 80 acres of their land to Operation Lion Ark and ADI committed the funds – thanks to the generosity of Bob Barker – and construction began of this enormous facility which included the huge biosphere to help the lions acclimatize, which is already being used to help more animals.
But what most excited us about TWAS was their commitment to making family prides of lions, to working towards a life for these animals as close to how they would live in nature, as possible. We felt very strongly that we did not want these families and friends split up and that they have the right to a family life. Since their arrival in Colorado, the most exciting development in this project has been seeing these sad and broken animals become prides – a massive achievement in itself.
Lions becoming lions again
Within days of seizing the 25 lions from the circuses in Bolivia, the ADI team began the rehabilitation process. Our MASH-style temporary field station was set up on a small piece of land given to us by the Mayor of Santa Cruz.
We started with proper food, nutritional supplements, and veterinary treatment. We built temporary cages so that we could maximize their space and they gradually returned to health, slowly transforming from the thin, parasite-infested lethargic animals we had removed from the circus. Although we knew their complete rehabilitation would not be possible until they had space to run at full speed.
We began to profile their personalities and placed in adjacent cages, those lions we felt could become good friends and could eventually form prides together.
Some were already living in groups – all of Bam Bam’s pride of eight had been crammed into one small cage at the circus! But others came as ones and twos and carried all the psychological problems of living isolated in a small barren cage. Males and females had to be separated, but families kept next to each other.
The importance of keeping families within sight and hearing of each other was a policy that was reflected in the loading of the aircraft; we devised a color-coded loading plan for the flight to ensure that nobody would be frightened or split from family or companions.
It was not possible to undertake full veterinary surgery in the field station so for those scheduled for major treatment, such as dental surgery, interim treatment was designed to just make them as comfortable as possible. Several lions needed urgent dental work on arrival in Colorado and we are very grateful to the Peter Emily Foundation, specialists in advanced veterinary dental services for captive exotic animals, who undertook the work. The lives of those lions were transformed.
Life begins in Colorado
After the Lion Ark touched down in Denver, the lions were released from their travel crates into our specially-built ‘biosphere’: a custom-built heated habitat of enclosures with trees and grass, under a fabric roof that lets in sunlight. The joyful reunited families ran, played and tumbled together.
Over the next few days all of the lions were anesthetized, given veterinary treatments, and the females given contraceptive implants. This allows for social balance in the prides without risk of a population explosion or fights when females are in season and is key to building families.
Of course we already had three family groups – BamBam and Morena and their boisterous family, Marta, Maria, Rosita, Rosa, Rosario and Campeon; Colo Colo, Muñeca and Lulu; Hercules and Kiara with Fida and Panchula and the cubs - Bob, Nancy, and Percy.
The others had come from all over Bolivia in ones and twos. There was sweet, shy India, taken from her parents as a cub, she had never seen other lions before. She was stereotypic and the only lion initially scared to leave her tiny circus cage. There were the good natured Pancho and Temuco – they charged out of the circus cage into the ADI holding pen and played and played. Kenya, taken as a cub and put in what was little more than a cupboard, was scared and lonely. When she first emerged from her circus cage, Kenya grabbed a tire in her new pen and clung onto it – her first ever toy. There were Chitara and Dalila the affectionate sisters who had spent their lives together. Then there was old Kimba; half blind and completely alone for a decade.
The Lion Ark Prides
The process began bringing together these disparate lions who had endured so much.
Kenya and India were brought together, and then we introduced them to Pancho and Temuco, and then Chitara and Dalila joined the group. Although at first, it appeared to be going perfectly to plan, slowly India turned on the boys. Probably because she was half-blind from a cataract in one eye, and because of the mental damage from her miserable life in the circus, this family would not work out for her.
So India was introduced to Kimba, the lonely male, and they like each other. They both have sight problems and so it is hoped that if these are dealt with, they could settle down together well – the sanctuary team will monitor and move forward slowly.
The recently rescued Panamanian lions are now sharing the Bolivian Lions’ biosphere and they may eventually join their family group as well.
While the lions acclimatized the huge outdoor enclosures were constructed. Each is around 20 acres of undulating natural countryside – not unlike African savannah during the summer. There are mounds and high points enabling the lions to survey their world (they like views); each has a lake, a waterhole, shelter from the sun, and underground dens – which they appear to enjoy very much. The lions are fed and monitored but do really lead their own lives, as they wish, living as naturally as possible.
The first pride to leave the biosphere was Bam Bam’s group of eight with one of the naughty young females, Rosario, leading the charge. They quickly found the underground den and moved straight into it – the whole pride sleeping together.
Next were Kenya’s pride – yes, once timid and hugging a tire, Kenya now leads the pride! Pancho and Temuco charged into the grassland, racing for 100 yards before pausing. They then settled to watch Bam Bam and his family next door. Kenya, meanwhile, led Chitara and Dalila on a mission exploring the whole enclosure.
When it was time for Colo Colo, Muñeca, and Lulu to leave, Colo Colo first charged the fence where we were watching, just to show he was still the boss and to be feared, then off they headed.
Hercules and his family were re-united inside the biosphere – Fida, Panchula, Kiara and the cubs, Percy, Nancy, and Bob. The cubs had been separated when in the circus, after being attacked, but the family were now settled. The cubs had grown fast and led the family out at breakneck speed, running, chasing and playing, their tails bouncing in and out of sight in the long grass.
Kimba and India continue to spend time together and have permanent access to outdoor areas. Their rehabilitation is not complete yet; they are a work in progress which could go on for years.
From tiny, stinking rusting cages in Bolivia to this paradise, our campaign secured the ban on animal circuses, continued on to the seizure operation, the airlift and now the rehabilitation. But it is not over yet.
Unless we can raise more funds we simply cannot afford to undertake operations like this in the future. We need your help today – please send what you can. Thank you.
Many more circus animals need rescuing – but first we need to pass the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act which aims to ban all wild animals in US circuses. Here are 2 quick things you can do to help: